2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz Second Drive: Truck-ish?

Chris Tonn
by Chris Tonn

It’s probably exciting to be working in transportation media at a dawn of an all-new product category. Imagine the journalists in 1964 witnessing the birth of the pony car. What about those in the mid-Nineties covering the birth of the crossover – never mind, that probably wasn’t all that thrilling. I’m picturing, instead, the newsroom at The Truth About Buggies in 1884, with cigar-chomping editors looking at telegraphed press releases touting the first automobile, sending poorly-paid flunky journalists on junkets via train with a typewriter.

Perhaps we’ve witnessed our own segment birth – or, really, re-birth – with the reimagining of the compact pickup truck market. The 2022 Hyundai Santa Cruz, it would seem to anyone watching, would be the first entrant into that category. Hyundai, inexplicably, would rather you not call it a truck.

Have you ever seen those wobbly hitch-mounted cargo carriers obscuring the license plates on slow-moving SUVs – usually with a Yeti cooler and some camp chairs strapped down? Perhaps the Santa Cruz is more like that – a Tucson with a well-integrated, weather-resistant (when properly equipped) cargo carrier.

Yes, this is a second drive – Tim took the fancy junket to California a few weeks ago, where I was invited to visit suburban Detroit for a few hours.

[Disclosure: Hyundai invited journalists to drive to Detroit – most of whom live in the Detroit area – and fed us lunch.]

As Tim noted, the Santa Cruz is surprisingly nice to drive. I do agree that wind and tire noise are a bit annoying, but they’re on par with most compact crossovers. I found myself enjoying the driving experience, as 281hp can make most cars scoot. It’s supremely maneuverable, with great sightlines to all four corners and a comfortable driving position – for the most part.

The rear seat might be a concern – I’d imagine my kids, for example, will complain if we were to embark upon a four-up cross-country journey. When the driver’s seat is comfortably positioned for my 6’3” frame, the seatback causes me to broadly splay my knees should I try and sit behind myself. Shifting seating positions could be a problem – I’m reminded of a time this summer when my eldest (at 5’8”) had to change from her softball uniform into a marching band uniform (and back) while we drove to and from a tournament and a parade. With the tight legroom in the Santa Cruz, this would have been a tough proposition.

Hyundai tells us, however, that the Santa Cruz is not focused on the family market. Rather, their target buyer is a reasonably wealthy single male living in an urban/suburban apartment who needs a single vehicle that meets his commuting needs through the week and handles his outdoorsy hobbies on the weekends. Some sort of vehicle, in other words, that handles both sport and utility. Hmm.

That bed (yes, Hyundai calls it a bed even though it isn’t a truck) looks quite useful. Made of sheet molding compound, the 52.1-inch bed (sorta – see below) is flexible, with molded recesses to create platforms or dividers from standard lumber, as well as an available rail and cleat system that gives adjustable tiedowns to supplement the standard six tie down points. The tailgate has an adjustable stop to allow long sheet goods to be supported while sitting atop the wheelwells – so, yes, you can haul a few sheets of plywood.

The 52.1-inch dimension I mentioned? Well, that doesn’t take into account the factory-installed rolling tonneau cover that is standard on the SEL Active, SEL Premium, and Limited trims. That rolling tonneau takes up a bit of room near the top of the bed nearest the cab. That said, I think the tonneau is a must-have feature. It gives secure, lockable storage – it locks with the remote just like the four doors and the tailgate – that is weather-resistant, making this a great alternative for someone who needs secure cargo stowage. The under bed trunk compartment is weather-sealed as well – but it’s quite shallow. Best guess – if you’re tailgating and using it as an ice chest, use cans as bottles will be too tall.

And, yes. Hyundai killed the volume knob on the Santa Cruz. How they missed the vitriol thrown at Honda and others is beyond me.

I’m disappointed, though not at all surprised, that the only examples that journalists have been able to test have been the fully loaded turbocharged all-wheel drive models. I want to see the volume model – which I confirmed will be the $33,185 SEL Activity package – which pairs the base 191hp 2.5-liter non-turbo with all-wheel drive. The Activity Package (so much room for Activities!) gives the essential tonneau cover, rear sliding glass (dogs love trucks, I’m told), LED bed lighting, 115v in-bed inverter, sunroof, roof rails, and wireless phone charging. That means you have a very attractive vehicle.

At $33k, the Santa Cruz SEL Activity AWD competes (at least as a vehicle – ignore for the moment the actual TRUCK capabilities) with base 4×4 trims of the Tacoma, Frontier, Ranger, and Colorado that all sticker right around that $33k mark. A base AWD Ridgeline, however, is $37k. The Santa Cruz is much better equipped at this price point.

It’s damned attractive to me, honestly – I don’t necessarily NEED a truck, which is likely how I’ve avoided buying one for a quarter-century of driving. But a compact, garageable, parkable vehicle that can haul my family and the occasional bicycle or maybe a mud-caked tent after a weekend family excursion is appealing, assuming the price and performance are what I need. I’d probably ditch AWD, as front-drive is perfectly suitable for my driving around here.

As it sits however, the Limited AWD I drove stickers above $40k delivered – at that price, the Santa Cruz is bumping up against vehicles that are more legitimately trucks – the septet of midsizers from Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevrolet, and GMC all begin to compare nicely in safety and convenience features all while maintaining legitimate truck capabilities.

The elephant in the room comes from Dearborn by way of Hermosillo. Now, we don’t know exactly how it’s going to stack up to the Santa Cruz in performance, but a nicely-equipped Maverick AWD EcoBoost Lariat works out to – you guessed it – right around $33k. An XLT trim will be lower, and the hybrid lower still.

Hyundai’s mum on an eventual hybrid Santa Cruz, though when pressed they hint that the Tucson Hybrid platform is quite similar. Draw no conclusions from that inference.

Is the Hyundai Santa Cruz right for you? It fits in weird, ill-defined niche at this point – and being the first to market, it can define that niche to some extent. I see it working beautifully for those who need a more flexible cargo space than one can get from a crossover. This will be great for the homeowner who isn’t running a load of lumber and drywall home from Home Depot every weekend – but a few boards, maybe a potted tree or flowerbush, and a bag or two of soil and mulch will be great in the back. Don’t expect to grab a ton of bulk gravel in the bed and you’ll be happy.

So many trucks, it seems, are capable of doing so much more than is typically asked of them. The eco-scolds scoff at the driver commuting to work solo in an unladen one-ton dually crew-cab – so why not buy only the truck you need rather than the one your self-image wants?

However, if you’re a truck buyer who imagines using your truck like one imagines a truck might be used, then the totally-not-a-truck Santa Cruz is probably not the truck-like non-truck for your imagined trucking needs.

[Images © 2021 Chris Tonn. Interior images courtesy Hyundai]

Chris Tonn
Chris Tonn

Some enthusiasts say they were born with gasoline in their veins. Chris Tonn, on the other hand, had rust flakes in his eyes nearly since birth. Living in salty Ohio and being hopelessly addicted to vintage British and Japanese steel will do that to you. His work has appeared in eBay Motors, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars, Reader's Digest, AutoGuide, Family Handyman, and Jalopnik. He is a member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, and he's currently looking for the safety glasses he just set down somewhere.

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  • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Sep 02, 2021

    Joe Diffie were driving this in the 90's and stopped to pick up Bobby Joe Gentry (The Homecoming Queen), I don't think she'd have gotten in.

  • Jeff S Jeff S on Sep 02, 2021

    She would have jumped off the Tallahassee bridge like Billy Joe but she would have written an Ode to Billy Joe before the final jump and then forded the River.

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
  • Milton Rented one for about a month. Very solid EV. Not as fun as my Polestar, but for a go to family car, solid. Practical EV ownership is only made possible with a home charger.
  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.